How to Track Your Menstrual CycleFeb 14, 2023
Take your performance to the next level by understanding your unique physiology.
In the summer of 2019, the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) won the World Cup, making it the U.S. women’s fourth World Cup title. They scored a record-setting 26 goals throughout the tournament and also made history with their training tactics: For the first time in the teams World Cup history, USWNT coaches tracked players’ menstrual cycles and symptoms, and adjusted the players training to help them perform their best.
Dawn Scott, high-performance coach for both the USWNT and the National Women's Soccer League, credited the breakthrough use of period tracking as one of the strategies the team used to take their performance to the next level. "I feel like it's one of many strategies that we deployed that helped us win," Scott told Good Morning America. "We could see what [menstrual cycle] phase a player was in and what some of their symptoms were," Scott said. "I would just text or say to a player, 'Hey you're in phase three and we know you get disrupted sleep, so make sure you do x, y and z.'"
I’ve been encouraging female athletes to monitor their menstrual cycles for more than a decade. So, I’ve been excited to see high-profile women from endurance athletes to the USWNT taking advantage of this really powerful tool.
How to Track Your Cycle
So maybe you’re finally convinced to track your cycle (or you’ve been tracking and want to take your tracking to the next level). The question is what’s the best tracking technique? The short answer is, of course, any way that works for you, so you’re consistent. The longer answer is there are a number of methods, and if you’re willing to invest a bit of extra time and effort, you can get some great results. Here’s what you need to know. (And for more on what to do with the information you gather, see my blog on how to Nail a PR at Every Phase of Your Menstrual Cycle.
Menstrual Tracking Basics
If you’re just getting started and/or want to keep it super simple, you can just use a paper calendar and a pen, marking the day of your cycle and how you feel. If you use an online training tool like TrainingPeaks, you can put little notes in the comment box. It doesn’t have to be fancy. The goal is to make you aware of where you are within your cycle and how you feel during each phase. For example, you might go back into your logs and see that on day 14 you typically had a fabulous workout or on day 26, you often felt tired and lethargic before your period started three days later. Too often women will push through off days, thinking they’re just stressed or worse, unfit, without making the connection that there is an underlying physiological aspect related to their cycle that’s making them feel that way. Once you make those connections, you can adjust your training accordingly to get the most out of each session.
Menstrual Tracking with Femtech
If you want to be more high-tech, you can use an app. Apps like WILD.AI use artificial intelligence to take the information you provide regarding the days of your cycle and how you’re feeling to help you see patterns, as well as make training and nutrition recommendations. The thing to remember when using an app is that you want to maintain your agency. You might have an app telling you that you’re in a certain part of your cycle, so you “should or shouldn't '' do something. That may be accurate in a general/overall physiological sense but may not be applicable to you personally; the goal is to learn your own body, understand how your physiology may be impacting how you feel, and train accordingly to maximize that session. It’s not to be completely tied to an algorithm. Where these apps really shine is using them with a coach. The U.S. soccer team uses FitrWoman, for example. The athletes themselves aren’t looking at the data day to day; their coach is and using that as another piece of information about each athlete to help maximize training and performance.
Menstrual Tracking with Biohacking
To take your tracking up a notch, add some biohacking. If you are naturally cycling, as opposed to on oral contraceptives, you can track the length of your cycle and the phases using an over the counter ovulation predictor kit and couple it with a basal body thermometer you can get from the pharmacy. (With the caveat that most women have 1 to 3 anovulatory cycles per year).
The estrogen surge right before ovulation lowers your internal temperature 1 degree F / 0.5 degrees C. After ovulation, your internal temperature goes up by 1 degree F / 0.5 degrees C because progesterone is thermogenic. Once you see that upsurge in temperature, you know you’re in the luteal phase. When you see a dip and then a rise, you know you’re around ovulation. The benefit of this is knowing the length of your low-hormone (follicular) phase, because the high hormone phase stays constant, but the follicular phase can vary considerably.
Tracking on Contraceptives
If you’re on oral contraceptives, you don’t have a natural menstrual cycle, but it’s still worthwhile tracking where you are in the pack along with how you’re feeling. Generally speaking, women may have better stress resilience in the first five days of active pills, and progressively less stress resilience and the need for more recovery as the active pills continue until about day two of the placebo/sugar pill when the hormones have been flushed out and you’re primed to take on higher stress again. Tracking can help you see your own rhythms.
If you’re on an IUD, your experience will be similar to a natural cycle. With the copper IUD, ovulation does not stop. With progestin-only (e.g. Mirena), ovulation usually resumes about eight months after insertion. So at that point you can track using your basal body temperature. (Up until that point, you are akin to being in the low hormone/follicular phase.)
Tracking During Perimenopause
With perimenopause, you can expect to have more anovulatory cycles. So, the actual cycle length can vary significantly. It is beneficial to track to understand how your cycles are changing and symptoms that may become more frequent the week before your period starts.
Tracking can also help you realize when you’re in perimenopause, so you can start adjusting your training, as I discussed in my blog Harness the Perimenopause Power Window.
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